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    Lesbians and Gays Depicted on Currency

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    Not too long ago, the Bank of England made a surprising, but welcome, announcement. “The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street,” as the institution is affectionately called, had chosen to honor Alan Turing (1912–1954) on its new £50 notes. Wanting to recognize a leading scientist, the Bank asked the public for suggestions. In six weeks it received 227,299 nominations for 989 eligible names. From a short list of 12, the final choice was made by the Bank’s governor, Mark Carney.

    One of the most brilliant and original minds of the last hundred years, Turing “was an outstanding mathematician whose work has had an enormous impact on how we live today,” Carney explained. “As the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, as well as a war hero, [his] contributions were far-ranging and path breaking.” Among others, he detailed the design of a stored-program computer, invented a method to solve matrix equations and linear equations, and created a simple method to determine whether or not a machine was “intelligent.”

    If issued in late 2021 as expected, the new notes will appear on the 70th anniversary of Turing becoming a fellow of the Royal Society. If delayed until early 2022, they will enter circulation 70 years after his arrest for gross indecency—he was convicted the next year—the same crime that sent Oscar Wilde to Reading Gael for two years at hard labor, exile, and early death. Turing escaped prison only by agreeing to chemical castration.

    According to Winston Churchill, Turing made the single greatest contribution to the Allied victory in World War II. His design for a computing device that could decipher enemy messages, written in the Nazi’s “unbreakable” Enigma codes, shortened the European conflict by at least two years, and possibly more, saving hundreds of thousands of lives from still more battles, bombings, and the death camps of the Final Solution.

    Churchill could have helped Turing after his arrest and conviction in 1952, but did nothing on his behalf. In 2009, however, 55 years after he died, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a full apology to Turing, thanking him for his “contribution to humankind” and for fighting fascism and war. Four years later, Queen Elizabeth II gave him a rare royal pardon. Now with the £50 notes, he is receiving “a massive acknowledgement of his mistreatment and unprecedented contribution to society.”

    Turing will be the latest, but not the only one of our LGBT forebearers to be honored on his or her nation’s currency. Mário Raul de Morais Andrade (1893–1945) appeared on the Brazilian 500,000 cruzeiros, which was used only briefly between 1993 and 1994 during a time of high inflation and currency reform.

    Andrade was a founder and hugely influential member of Brazil’s avant-garde modernist movement of the 1920s, which revolutionized the country’s literature, arts, and culture. Some critics claim he essentially created modern Brazilian poetry with his Paulicéia Desvairada (Hallucinated City), published in 1922. Six years later his novel Macunaíma, with its combination of authenticity and fantasy later known as magical realism, helped to transform the nation’s fiction. He was also an essayist, a musicologist, folklorist, art historian, critic, and photographer. His work and his ideas remain highly influential.

    For many reasons, Andrade carefully guarded his privacy, although there was some speculation about his sexual orientation during his lifetime. In 1929 the writer Oswald de Andrade (no relation) published an article that referred to him as “our Miss São Paulo.” Some of what he wrote can be given a homosexual interpretation, but not until 2015 was one of his letters made available to researchers that showed that he was sexually attracted to other men.

    No country has honored more LGBT people on its currency than Sweden. Selma Lagerlöf, (1858–1940), became world famous as the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, although no one except her most intimate friends knew she also was making history as the first lesbian to be given that high honor. In 1991, she also became the first woman to be depicted on a Swedish banknote.

    Lagerlöf’s first success as a writer came with Gösta Berling’s Saga, published in 1891 when she was 32. In 1923 it became a film starring Greta Garbo in the performance that brought her to the attention of Hollywood, where she arrived in 1925. The film reviewer and biographer Barry Paris described Garbo, famously secretive about her personal life, as “technically bisexual, predominantly lesbian, and increasingly asexual as the years went by.” In 2016 her portrait appeared on a new 100-krona banknote, still in circulation.

    As part of the same banknote series, Sweden also saw a new 1,000-krona banknote honoring diplomat and United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (1905–1963), an office he held from 1953 until his death in an airplane crash eight years later. In tribute, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed Hammarskjöld as “the greatest statesman of our century.” He is the only person ever to be honored with a Nobel Peace Prize awarded posthumously.

    Like so many LGBT women and men of his generation, Hammarskjöld was intensely protective of his private life. Even so, gossip about him being gay began soon after he became Secretary General. True or not, he apparently was unable to accept his sexuality, whatever it was. The poet W. H. Auden, however, who knew Hammarskjöld, was convinced that he was a man who loved other men; some believe his saying so publicly cost Auden his own Nobel Prize for Literature.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.

    Published on February 11, 2021